As most of my students are upperclassmen and many are within a year of graduation, I do an unusual assignment for a lab course. They are to “write a one-page essay titled, ‘What I Want To Do With My Life’ and email it to me, after which we meet one-on-one to discuss it.” It is a very popular assignment as many of them express frustration with how often they are asked that question and struggle with how to answer it, so they are eager to discuss it.
What they don’t realize is how many other "meta" lessons are wrapped up in how I do the assignment—lessons on following directions, common sense, learning to apply what they have learned when they aren’t given directions.
The strangest thing I’ve discovered is how many of them seem to think that since they email it to me as an attachment, they do not have to put their names on their papers. Of course, I get 100-200 of these, depending on the enrollment, and just print them out as quickly as possible. Thus I have a big stack of essays separated from their email header. Around 10% don’t have their name anywhere on the page, and they lose points.
Also, I get a lot of questions about format. The lack of formatting instructions is deliberate, but extremely distressing to a surprising number of students. When they graduate and a boss asks them for a progress report on some project, s/he isn’t going to tell them, “I want it double spaced, 12 point Helvetica with 1-inch margins.” The boss just wants the info in a readable form with proper grammar, spelling, and usage. The purpose of all of their English and other writing classes is to show them appropriate things to consider in formatting so they can use that knowledge later without being explicitly told. The withdrawal symptoms are difficult for them, and I refuse to tip my hand ahead of time, forcing them to deal with their angst.
In light of that, it is amazing how many of them then proceed to violate what explicit instructions I do give them. The first thing is that I tell them it is ONE page. I’ve had submissions as long as THREE pages. Here they decide to interpret specific instructions rather than just following them. This typically comes from being conditioned to write at least ‘x’ pages in all of their other writing classes. Again, in the real world, it is very different. Journals, funding agencies and the like typically have page limits, and the boss looking for that status report is communicating how much time they want to spend looking at it. Furthermore, when specifying “one page,” it communicates that one desires to only handle a single sheet of paper, so bleeding over or putting on a title page defeats the purpose. Given how different computers change formatting of files as the document passes through, I usually don’t count off if it is a line or two, because it probably was one page on the student’s computer, but more than that, and they have failed to follow directions. The longer it is over a page, the more credit they lose.
The second thing they sometimes don’t pick up on (though not as often) is that the instructions are to make the appointment with me after they submit the essay. Since I read these ahead of time, I want to be sure I get the paper before they come in, and also, I want to reward those who turn it in earlier with the best pick of appointment times. Therefore, if a student wants a certain time slot, there is incentive to get the report in early. If they do it backwards, I simply cancel their appointment and send an email to follow directions.
Finally, the area where they tend to lose the biggest points is if they fail to show up for the appointment, and worse if they never contact me about it and just quietly set up another appointment, or forget the whole thing. I have prepared for their time, and another student was unable to use that slot. When we do meet, it is a great teaching moment about how they just lost the job for which they were “interviewing.” They pale when they realize how important it is at this level to pay attention to ‘details’ like that.
On occasion, I do get push back from a student about how I am grading them on things that were never explicitly laid out anywhere. I love it when they do that. They usually lose their fire pretty quickly when it is explained to them that after graduation, and in the job hunt even before graduation, they are always being evaluated, and there isn’t some arbitrary number or letter grade at stake, but a job, a promotion, a salary level, letter of recommendation or other big, real consequence.
They are being evaluated on both important and trivial things, and they rarely have a clue of the complete list of things people may be watching for, so it is critical to make the common sense things automatic, so that it is easier to pick up on some of the other things and make adjustments on the fly. I’d rather bust their chops on a little five point assignment in a one hour course than have them fall on their faces where it really counts. Most get this, though for some I have to spell it out. Nearly everyone gets it finally, though a couple still walk away grumbling at how unfair I am. If I’m unfair in this, then they are going to find life a lot harder.
I share all of this not to blow my own horn, but to urge as many colleagues as possible to incorporate something similar. I only impact a few hundred a year out of hundreds of thousands of college students. With more and more studies showing the increasing immaturity of our students and graduates, there are a lot of lessons that our parents and earlier schooling taught us that they aren’t learning by the time we see them. I fear that this contributes to a number of the economic problems we have currently, and even to the situations specifically of those in the “Occupy” movements around the country, and as announced today, around the globe. It is both ministry and mercy for us to prepare them in whatever ways we can beyond the simple academics of our fields.